WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has been asked to investigate whether the Bush administration retaliated against a critic of its Iraq policy by leaking the name of his wife, an undercover CIA operative, to journalists, a top administration official said Sunday.
The allegation stems from a report in July by syndicated columnist Robert Novak that identified Valerie Plame as a specialist in weapons of mass destruction for the CIA. Novak cited "two senior administration officials" as his sources.
Plame is married to former State Department envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV. A week before Novak's column was published, an article by Wilson on the New York Times' op-ed page questioned now-discredited claims, made by President Bush in his State of the Union address in January, that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Africa.
Disclosing the identities of agency operatives, like revealing classified information, is punishable under several federal laws by fines and jail terms.
The Justice Department "will determine the facts," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said on "Fox News Sunday," responding to reports, first made Friday by NBC News, that the CIA had asked department officials to examine the case. "They will determine what happened; they will determine if anything happened. And they'll take appropriate action."
Rice said she was unaware of any White House involvement in the alleged leak. "I know nothing of any such White House effort to reveal any of this, and it certainly would not be the way that the president would expect his White House to operate," she said.
Representatives of the CIA and the Justice Department declined comment on Sunday.
Wilson, the last U.S. diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was dispatched by the CIA to Niger in 2002 to evaluate intelligence reports that Iraq was attempting to purchase a form of uranium, known as "yellowcake," which can be used to make a nuclear bomb.
Bush alluded to a British report in his State of the Union address as part of making the case to go to war against Iraq.
In his July 6 op-ed article, Wilson said he had concluded from his visit "that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place."
His critique jump-started the debate over what the Bush administration knew and what it revealed to the public in rallying support earlier this year for the war in Iraq. Five days after the article appeared, the administration acknowledged that it had been wrong to include the Africa allegation in the State of the Union speech but stood by its central claim that Hussein was attempting to restart his weapons programs.
It was not clear whether Justice Department officials had determined if there were adequate grounds to open a formal investigation of the alleged leak. Typically, officials make a preliminary inquiry into a matter, interviewing some of the principals said to be involved, before deciding whether to proceed formally. Once any such determination is made, the case would likely be assigned to the department's criminal or public-integrity sections.